The way I see it, history as a subject reads best when it is both documented and re-imagined (In Cold Blood, Ragtime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men come immediately to mind); when a literary revelation emerges as a result of source material from the scene and from the bigger world get all mixed up. Artistic freedom applied to the narrative of seeing the world gives historical events a kind of literary sense beyond the mere recording of something that happened in time.
By nature, history is haphazard and at its core, personal. And I can’t think of any American poet who knows that fact as deeply and successfully as C.D. Wright who has, in a number of books, combined poetry with other kinds of writing to make a history about prisoners in Louisiana (One Big Self: An Investigation a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster), or America’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world (Rising, Falling, Hovering) or, in her most recent book, One With Others, her own, even more familiar smalltown Arkansas and the civil rights movement in the late sixties.
_____It smells like home. She said, dying. And I, What’s that you smell, V. And V, dying: The faint cut of walnuts in the grass. My husband’s work shirt on the railing. The pulled-barbecued evening. The turned dirt. Even in this pitch I can see the vapor-lit pole, the crape myrtle not in shadow…
So begins this brilliant book of poems, prose, oral history, collection of historical records and eyewitness accounts about a group of blacks living in rural Arkansas and their ‘walk against fear’ in 1969 (most strongly felt as a response to King’s assassination the year before). This account of second class citizenship (culminating at one point in a round up of the town’s black students into an emptied public swimming pool) is told from different points of view – most luminously revealed in the life of a woman known as “V” (Wright’s mentor and guide):
_____They drove her out of the town. They drove her out of the state. Until they burned up her car, she drove herself. Burned her car right next to the police station. She had just begun to drive, I mean she had just learned to drive and she had many miles to go. Then, whoa, Gentle Reader, no more car. The white man burned that MF to the struts.
While this is a book about memory (and how it mixes with politics to form a kind of seam against oppression) it is also a reminder of how the story of civil rights continually evolves with differing sets of explosive situations to set the next call to action in motion:
To act, just to act. That was the glorious thing.
Walking we are just walking
Dead doe on the median
Whoever rides into the scene changes it
Pass a hickory dying on the inside
A black car that has not moved for years
Forever forward/backwards never
One With Others with it’s look back at the history of a march is also interlaced with looks into the future. V, for instance, ends up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – the place one senses, that names a location as much as a state of mind:
_____IN HELL’S KITCHEN: Her apartment is smaller by half than the shotgun shacks that used to stubble the fields outside of Big Tree. Stained from decades of nonstop smoking. The world according to V was full of smoke and void of mirrors.
_____She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally incapable of conforming. She was resolutely resistant.
_____Her low-hanging fears no match for her contumacy
_____Grappling books in the mud leaf out in the mind
What gives this book it’s great heart and beauty is how it follows not only the force and fragmentary transcription of history and civil rights on a local level, but that it follows thinking itself: a fixation on a memory, the confusion over time of who is who and the indelible way activism and art documents a time. (Aside from the march and outcries, there is also a continuing devotion to literature, painting and music).
This feeling of the mind working in time is also drawn literally, typographically, with continuous placements of wide white spaces between lines and paragraphs and list items. By the end, the book takes on the form of a list undulating into a paragraph followed by lines breaking away: the way, as if the past is a dream, we make ourselves remember it and piece it together:
_____Not the sound but the shape of the sound
_____Not the clouds rucked up over the clothesline
_____The copperhead in the coleus
_____Not the air hung with malathion
_____Not the boomerang of bad feelings
_____Not the stacks of poetry, long-playing albums, the visions of Goya and friends
_____Not to be resuscitated
_____and absolutely no priests, up on her elbows, the priests confound you and then they confound you again. They only come clear when you’re on you deathbed. We must speak by the card of equivocation will undo us.
_____Look in to the dark heart and you will see what the dark eats other than your heart.
One With Others is a masterpiece.